Learning to Read the Grain

I was fortunate enough a few weekends ago to take a class at the New Legacy School of Woodworking with Paul Sellers.  Paul has been getting a lot of attention here in the states lately, as he has recently open up a branch of his school in Greenwich, NY.  I was very excited about this news, as its only an hour drive from my shop upstate.




If I would have to put a label on myself, I would like to be considered a hybrid woodworker. Perhaps a more accurate label might be a power tool guy with an interest in hand tools.  That is until this weekend class.  As many of you probable know- Paul is a hand tool guru.  He is on a mission to bring hand tool skills to a new generation.   I must admit, as enthusiastic I was about taking the class, I was not expecting to be converted.  Paul makes a very strong case for the ease the use of hand tools over power tools.  In fact, one of the things that he talks about first is that hand tools are just that: tools, while power tools are not tools at all, but machines.

New Legacy is located on gorgeous piece of property in Upstate NY

The whole tone of the school is set as you drive onto the serene property, park and cross a a small footbridge and head to the newly constructed post and beam barn.  They have really done a spectacular job.  How can you not be inspired working amongst these massive beams with magnificent joinery?  We had three spectacular days that allowed the barn to be awash with natural light.

If you don’t know Paul or his work you should definitely explore his blog and check out his videos on You Tube. His book and DVD series will certainly give you an idea of the class structure and his approach to teaching.  But do not be fooled there is nothing like sitting in a class with a master craftsman with the ability to soak up information!  A note about the DVD’s:  I have read comments about how the graphics are over a bit over the top and it’s over produced, but I gotta tell you, as a guy who has slept through countless woodworking DVD’s I appreciated the effort, it keeps me excited and I am sure it will entice my children into watching it.

My box carcass

I took three day Woodworking Essential I class, part of a nine day series.  The project was the Shaker pine candle box.  A great skill building project.  While it may seem a simple project, like many classes, it’s about building these foundation techniques and not about the project.



Here are just a few nuggets I picked up along the way:

A great technique for planeing dovetails:  The board is placed under the box in the vise, creating a slight bow on the surface.  The plane is approached from the outside and prevents you from reaching the dovetails on the opposite end and creating tearout.





While it seems simple, center the box on the base isn’t always.  By laying out 45° pencil lines at each corner you can quickly and easily eyeball your box evenly on the base.




What a difference! My sawing technique has come miles!  I now understand how to gently approach the wood and let the saw do the work. Paul explained saw sharpening, how the teeth are set and the real difference in steel, teeth and the set.  Real eye opening.  I’ve already come home and dove right into learning all I can on saws and sharpening.  Something I didn’t really expect.



My Hand tool technique has also grown.  Paul will tell you you can do anything with a Stanley No. 4.  and he sure can!  I am now very comfortable with my planes and really understand what a small adjustment in the tool can make, what to look for and what to listen for.  My shavings are a joy.



I really walked away with so many positive techniques and things to ponder.  One of the most important things I think I took away was a real appreciation of how to read the grain.  There is definitely something about hand tools that puts you in touch with the wood that machines just can’t.  While I would not say I am posting my woodworking machines on Craigslist just yet, I do see how it will change my woodworking experience. I have so much more confidence now when I reach for my dovetail saw or my No. 4 plane.*

Paul has certainly had an influence of how I approach the wood. It is so much about listening to the wood and feeling the tool slice into the grain at the proper angle and with the right touch.  Before I would take such an aggressive approach that it would be impossible for me or the wood to react properly.  Paul has a very logical approach to his teaching, throwing out antidotes while he carves a spoon in the time it takes you and I to choose which tool to use, making it appear to be the simplest of tasks. I think that is truly what is so unique about Paul’s approach: he keeps everything simple. From teaching with  pine to primarily working with a no. 4 plane and small selection of tools.  But don’t think for a moment this is a simple man, he is a master craftsman with a keen eye, a serene demeanor and a hearty work ethic.   He is on a mission to pass on skills of the past, and make them skills of the future.

*Full disclosure.   I purchased a Stanley No. 4 Plane and a 1871 Disston Saw on Ebay the next day.

Dovetail Connections

Back in September I attended the Berkshire WoodWorkers guild show in Stockbridge, MA. It’s an opportunity for members to display and sell their work.   The craftsman are varied in age, gender, and design sensibility. It’s a small show and I’m always surprised that there aren’t more active members, given the creative nature of the Berkshires.

Each year there is a silent auction of smaller projects from members. This year there was a “handcut dovetail class” on the auction block. Starting bid was $90. I’m in! I signed my name and was the 1st to bid, we then went and wandered the show. As I stated, designs and skill levels are varied, and you know how it is, you wander a show and there are certain pieces and artisans that you respond to more than others. Towards the end I came upon the booth of John Corcoran. His work was traditional, well done and obviously created with a skilled hand.  As I admired his work, we sparked up a lively conversation. He spoke of his work and where he has taken classes. It was then that it occurred to me the John was the one offering the dovetail class. Perfect I thought!

Well as luck would have it, I got a call later that week that I had indeed won the auction. Score! The sad thing is, no one else apparently bid. I must say I was surprised. Like many of you, I want to see more folks participating in the hobby we find so enjoyable. Ah well, their loss, my gain.

I was very excited. I’ve taken a number of woodworking classes, but handcut dovetails were never really covered in great depth. I can machine cut dovetails and I’ve even handcut single dovetails for joinery, but not for a traditional use such as a drawer.  In fact, last year I built a shaker table as part of the Woodworkers Fighting Cancer build with The Woodwhisper Guild. Sadly the table has sat in my shop awaiting a drawer. It just seemed to me to be one of those projects that calls for handcut dovetails. I didn’t want to use a router jig  for a 3″ drawer, and I didn’t want to cop out and use a rabbit joint on this very traditional table (I am a member of the Hancock Shaker Village after all!). So the table sits, collecting dust until my skills (& confidence) are up to it.

So after lots of phone calls back and forth, John and I set up a Saturday morning for my private lesson.

John, a former engineer, has spent his retirement pursuing his woodworking dream, building a shop and honing his craft by taking extensive classes. An avid fan of Krevnov’s work, he spent three weeks out at the College of the Red Woods Fine Woodworking Program sharpening his skills, as well as several classes at the Center for Furniture in Maine.

John Corcoran at the Berskhire Woodoworkers Guild Show

We headed out to the shop, where John had laid out an impressive display of tools for us.  He was very organized, including a step by step printed hand out.  This wasn’t going to just be a couple of hours hanging in the shop!  This was a one on one tutorial.  We briefly went through the various tools and he got straight to it.  He showed me how he does the layout and then he let me lay it out, he showed me how he cuts this pins and then I cut my pins, and so forth.  This was great.  I thought, this is how woodworking classes should be, a couple of hours zeroing in on just one skill, in a casual shop atmosphere and no distractions for other students at different levels.

We covered both through and blind dovetails.  John is a “pins first” kinda guy, which makes sense to me.  So we’ll see, perhaps that makes me a “pins first” guy as well!  His technique is quite similar to Kari Hultman’s video shown here.  John also uses a block, clamped down at the shoulder, giving the chisel a surface to reference off of (very smart!). Unlike Kari and others, John does not use a fret saw, which I was happy about.  I have not really tried the fret saw, but I like using the chisel to remove all the waste.  John also introduced me to a simple method of twisting the chisel to remove larger pieces of waste. It’s those small techniques that make classes so valuable.

Well, time flew and before we knew it we had worked though lunch. John’s wife was kind enough to prepare some sandwiches and we sat inside and chatted for at least an hour!  It’s true what they say about woodworkers, we are a kind bunch (and so are their wives!).

Although it was only October, we were hit that day with a freak snow storm.   As we sat in their house the snow continued to come down, I looked out and decided I better get on the road. I could have stayed all day, but I would have to finish up my blind dovetail at home.


As you can see my dovetails came out pretty good…

What's wrong with this picture??

…except for cutting my blind tails as both pins!  I guess I need to hire full time to look over my shoulder!

Please take a moment to check out John’s work here.

He is a true gentleman, a talented woodworker and a new friend.